Fears grow that climate change could put an end to fishing in Ireland

Daragh McGuinness, a deck hand on the Atlantic Challenger, on the fishing vessel moored in the harbour in Killybegs, western Ireland.
Daragh McGuinness, a deck hand on the Atlantic Challenger, on the fishing vessel moored in the harbour in Killybegs, western Ireland. Copyright Paul Faith / AFP
By Euronews with AFP
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Rising temperatures appear to be pushing some fish north to colder waters, out of reach of some boats.

When he left school, Darragh McGuinness knew his vocation: to join a fishing crew. But with the Atlantic warming up, the 23-year-old Irishman now fears the job that has sustained his family for generations could disappear.


"It's a huge problem," McGuinness said from the cockpit of the Atlantic Challenge, moored in the port of Killybegs in north-west Ireland. "This could put an end to fishing, in Ireland at least".

The sharp rise in temperatures in the North Atlantic this summer has increased the pressure on a sector already in difficulty. 

It has heightened fears of a change in fish migrations, which would push certain species northwards towards colder waters. The blow could be fatal.

At the end of July, the waters of the North Atlantic reached an average temperature never before measured, with a surface water temperature record of 24.9°C, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Atlantic Challenge, like many of the boats in Killybegs, fishes for blue whiting and mackerel - highly prized on international markets - and returns to port after one or two days of fishing to ensure that the products are fresh.

"If we had to go any further, too far north, it would no longer be possible to return to Killybegs" with fresh fish, explained Darragh McGuinness.

Paul Faith / AFP
Killybegs Fishermen's Organisation CEO Sean O’DonoghuePaul Faith / AFP

Climate change is having a "dramatic effect" on stocks of white fish, such as cod, which prefer cold waters, adds Sean O'Donoghue, director of the Killybegs Fishermen's Organisation.

He fears it is "a matter of time" before the so-called pelagic fish, such as mackerel, blue whiting and herring, move north: "If the water continues to warm up, we could end up with very few fish".

He observed that Icelandic fishermen were catching more mackerel, while the members of his organisation were catching more species such as anchovies and sardines, which are generally found in the warmer waters of the south.

The temperatures recorded in July are all the more worrying given the North Atlantic usually reaches its peak in September.

In June, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recorded an 'extreme' marine heat wave off Ireland and the UK.


That month, temperatures four to five degrees higher than normal for the summer were recorded off the Irish coast," explains Glenn Nolan, head of oceanography and climate services at the Marine Institute in Ireland.

Very high temperatures, up to 24.5 degrees, were recorded in bays in County Galway, he says. "This is much more than we would normally expect".

Nolan expects a study attributing the June and July temperature spikes to climate change to be published shortly.

The UN's International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has attributed the intensity of marine heatwaves to global warming for decades, notes the Galway-based expert.

Extreme temperatures could well cause changes in fish migration, confirms Glenn Nolan. The proliferation of algae in warm waters is already causing "problems for molluscs and fish", he points out.


The Irish fishing industry is facing another major difficulty: the consequences of Brexit. Ireland, a member of the European Union, has seen its fishing quotas cut by 15% by 2025 as part of the last-minute trade deal struck between London and Brussels.

"Unfortunately, the agreement has hit Ireland disproportionately hard," laments Sean O'Donoghue.

He is calling for changes to European fisheries policy to take account of the impact of Brexit on the sector in Ireland and to mitigate the effects of climate change.

"We are not happy with the way Europe's Common Fisheries Policy is going at the moment. Brexit and climate change must be taken into account," insists Mr O'Donoghue.

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